Summary

Much of Penone's work in the 1970s explored the nature of skin as a container of his body separating him from his environment. Other works made during this period investigated the mark-making potential of the sculptor's hand and skin on his creative materials. His Breath sculptures of 1978 (see Tate T03420) and their accompanying drawings combine these two interests. They are large, terracotta, pot-like forms bearing the imprint of the artist's body, beginning from his open mouth at the top and bulging out, following the lines of torso and legs, to a bulbous base. They bring together the two ingredients from which man is made in the Biblical myth of creation: clay and (divine) breath, and represent the immaterial in solid, three-dimensional form.

An exhaled breath is equivalent to the air the potter introduces into his vortex, and it is equivalent to the word. The word is charged with connotations and is capable of giving rise to an image, apparently creating something from nothing. The breath or word flows through the oral cavity: this is the first image to which it gives rise, and the vortex it produces enwraps the body objectivizing its subjectivity.

(Quoted in Celant, p.91.)

The series of drawings titled Breath of Clay (see Tate T06773) document the thinking process behind the sculpture, as Penone imagined the form his exhaled breath would take and transformed it into a kind of container for his body. This drawing shows a skeleton seen from behind within the form of the breath, suggesting that the surrounding pod-like clay has become the body's flesh and skin. The other drawing suggests a mollusc-like organism; only the point of contact between clay and mouth has been detailed, resulting in an ambiguous image. The use of coffee as a material for drawing reflects the collapsing of boundaries between art and life typical of the artists associated with the Arte Povera movement (emergent 1967-71), which espoused the use of non-precious materials and of which Penone was part. The drawings illustrate Penone's belief that man and nature are one, and therefore that culture is not distinct from nature.

Further reading:
Germano Celant, Giuseppe Penone, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol 1989, pp.90-1
Giuseppe Penone: 1968-1998; exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporanea, Santiago de Compostela 1999
Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Arte Povera, London 1999, pp.146-53

Elizabeth Manchester
September 2000